Our quarrel with the foe

by Terence MacNamee

“Those that I fight I do not hate / those that I guard I do not love” said Yeats’s Irish airman in the First World War. Indeed, during the time of that huge, senseless conflict of a hundred years ago in Europe, the participants must often have reflected how little they hated the men on the opposing side, and how little “quarrel with the foe” (to quote another famous poem of that time) they personally had.

Hatred remains a reality, but it seems to be more characteristic of civil wars and rebellions than of conventional war, despite the immense destructiveness of the latter. Hatred can fester in a society and never get worse than the occasional riot or pogrom. A long time ago, the sociologist Georg Simmel developed a theory of hatred. Investigating religious differences in Switzerland, he found that “the degeneration of a difference in convictions into hatred and fight occurs only when there were essential, original similarities between the parties… ‘Respect for the enemy’ is usually absent where the hostility has arisen on the basis of previous solidarity.”

So, in Simmel’s reasoning, in order for there to be hatred, there has first to be solidarity. Spinoza had much the same idea when he said of the man who hates: “his hatred will be in proportion to the strength of his former love.” In other words, we hate what we once loved, or at least what has got too close to us. It is precisely because of the former closeness and lack of boundaries that the violent emotion of hatred is needed to create a boundary between self and other at all costs.

Hence we find brother hating brother in a civil war, or one denomination hating another denomination of the same religion. Examples abound both in recent history and, alas, in the world today.

The only solution to hatred is to admit that love and hatred are mixed up together, and that some people are too “charged” with emotion, too close to us for us to be rational about them. Then perhaps we can cool down and let them go. But first of all we have to admit that we hate them. This may be hard to do, because hatred has become unmentionable, inadmissible, it is not supposed to be. Yet we do hate. We hate collectively and individually, whether we admit it or not. We hate other groups we are opposed to in our society, and we hate individuals who have done us wrong. Always these are people who have got too close and that we are trying to keep at a distance, out of our hearts.

Before we condemn hatred elsewhere in the world, we have to recognise the hatred that festers within ourselves, even in the lesser form of resentment and hostility, and exclaim ruefully “where is the man who is free of hate?”

Once we make that admission to ourselves, we will be freer to engage with cultures totally unlike our own, but with whom we find ourselves having to share what seems like a shrinking world.